Top Defense Official Gilad Heads to Cairo for Gaza Truce Talks

Hamas reply to Gaza truce proposal expected by Saturday; Hamas-Egypt talks ended on Wednesday without a deal.

Senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad headed to Cairo on Thursday to meet with Egyptian mediators over negotiations for a truce with Hamas in Gaza.

Before leaving Israel, Gilad met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for a final briefing regarding the official Israeli response to the Egyptian proposal.

Talks between Egyptian intelligence officials and a Hamas delegation ended on Wednesday without a deal. Hamas said Israeli proposals for an agreement, carried through Egypt, were vague.

An unidentified Egyptian official told MENA the Hamas delegation "will come back to Cairo on Saturday to inform the Egyptian officials of the final response."

But a representative of the Hamas delegation, Salah al-Bardawil, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram on Thursday that Egypt and Hamas had reached a draft agreement for a cease-fire.

Bardwail said the draft stipulates a year-and-a-half long truce between Hamas and Israel. It also includes the opening of all border crossings for 80 percent of goods, though would need to clarify exactly what type of goods it would allow in, Bardawil said.

"We want to understand ... what are the materials that Israel wants to ban because they are used to make rockets? or will this be subject to the whim of Israel?" he said.

Bardawil also told Al-Ahram that according to the draft agreement, the Rafah crossing would be closed from time to time. He also said that Israel rejected a proposal to station international observers on the Rafah border.

Another member of the Hamas delegation, Mohamed Nasr, told the Arabic television station Al Jazeera that Israel had presented its own offer to Egypt, but that the issue of border openings remained unclear.

"We have received through the brothers in Egypt an Israeli offer. This offer has a lot of vagueness," said Nasr. "This offer does not talk about lifting the blockade." He said the Egyptians still needed time to relay Hamas's questions to Israel.

Hamas and Israel have been holding separate talks with Egyptian mediators on terms for a long-term truce after three weeks of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and Hamas rocket barrages on southern Israel.

Both sides declared separate cease-fires on January 18, but acts of violence have continued.

Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to reopen all Gaza's border crossings so that people and goods can move freely. Gaza has been under blockade for most of the time since Hamas took power there in June 2007.

Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk said on Wednesday the Israelis were offering to reopen the crossings at 70 percent capacity but said Hamas wanted a more precise definition of Israel's commitment.

A key issue in the negotiations is the opening of the Rafah crossing, which Hamas is seeking to have opened completely, with Turkish troops monitoring its operation, in accordance with a plan drafted by the United States three years ago.

Egypt is opposed to such a move, but is nevertheless seeking to place a force loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the crossing, a proposal Hamas has thus far resisted.

Another outstanding issue is the Israeli request to create a half-kilometer buffer zone in the area known as the "security parameter" on the Palestinian side of the border fence with Israel. Israel is seeking to prevent the entry of armed militants to the area to combat the placement of explosive devices or the digging of tunnels there.

Another critical issue involves the link between the release of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit with the lull and the opening of crossings.

Israel is demanding that even a partial opening of the crossings be dependent on progress towards Shalit's release, for example providing a clear sign the soldier is still alive.

Hamas has until now opposed such a link. Egypt has expressed uncertainty in relation to its capacity to force Hamas into such an agreement, but promised Israel it would make efforts towards that end.